The insight project is a rare example of science combined with technology and mental science experts to tackle the most pressing challenge of our times- “Mental illness or sufferings.” They are trying to answer the question that could they combine the best of game design and technology with cutting edge clinical neurosciences and psychology to aid with mental sufferings to promote mental well being? Development of insight project is solely based upon Ninja theory’s aspiring goal to merge biometric sensors, neuroscience, and game architecture to cure mental illness.
It started about four years ago when Tameem Antoniades developed a video game in which the player would be in the shoes of a character suffering from mental sickness. Senua is a young warrior character developed by Cambridge, England, development studio Ninja Theory. Senua is mentally sick- she visualizes things that do not really exist around her. She sees the destruction of villages, shambling giants with heavy blades and skull masks and strange whisperings in her ears. These illusions are scary but at the same time they are as real for her as the ground she is walking on.
For the purpose of the depiction of true empathic and psychosis, Antoniades with team consulted with Paul Fletcher- an expert neuroscientist to explore livings with such mental illness and talk about their experiences. The depiction was well organized and up to the mark; their team won an award from the UK’s leading institute of psychiatry – The royal college of Psychiatrists and five BAFTAs.
“The fact that we were invited to so many science conferences … kind of made me realize that the work we’ve done was quite significant in some way,” he says. “And it’s significant because we helped represent something that was very difficult to represent.”
The insight project is inheriting experience from Hellblade, a game which was confronting bitter realities of mental sickness: This game was successful in gaining recognition and proved that games can play an important role in changing people’s attitude towards mental sufferings and influence working of brains. Thus continuing this experience, Fletcher and Ninja Theory are on a new journey to utilize their experience gained from psychiatry and game development to create a more life-changing experience.
“We want to create games that can change people’s lives,” said Antoniades.
Brain on video games
The human brain is easily influenced by changes and adaptable in different circumstances. It can learn new things, new skills and is capable of recovering from injuries and shocks over a period of a lifetime. From a core understanding of this reality, it is assumed that video games can surely affect brains and help them to cope up with different situations.
“The interesting question is, of course, to what intensity does change happen, and in what ways,” says Steven Conway, lecturer on games and interactivity at Swinburne University in Australia. “The explicit feedback loops provided in games, potentially, can impact the brain’s development at a higher intensity than other phenomena, since its supercharging learning.”
There is a concern that how effective video games are for treating mental illness?
“There’s definitely a role for video games in helping mental health interventions create more engaging experiences and also enabling deeper types of learning,” says Vanessa Cheng, a researcher studying gamified mental health apps at the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Institute. There are already some success stories using game design principles.
Research work at King’s College London is introducing avatar therapy for psychosis patients. In this therapy, there is an avatar that represents hostile voices and the patient can speak with it. With passing time, the avatar which is the voice of the therapist, becomes less aggressive and allows patients to overcome voices. Randomized controlled trials depicted that this therapy is far better than counseling.
According to Antoniades, their team is working on another project at Ninja theory which the world had never seen. It seems so unrealistic to place your patient face-to-face with their illness but they are making it possible by creating the most realistic and adoptable avatars.
“I think it’s safe to say that video games and other game-related therapies will never replace traditional therapies and medication,” Cheng says, noting that “for people who may not be well served by traditional treatment methods, games can certainly complement treatments.”
Making invisible, visible
Considering insight project, it is not necessary that Ninja Theory is developing video games or sequel of Hellblade, but it is essential to keep in mind that this work is a collaboration between Fletcher and Ninja theory based upon ambitious goal to develop something that can help in mental illness by using biometric sensors to capture psychological data by using avatars. The potential of this project is far more than video games; therefore currently the team is focused on analyzing and treating different mental disorders such as anxiety, stress, psychosis, fear, etc through video games. In short, such games are not about killing your enemies or keeping high scores on board, their goal is to help people discover their fears and to overcome their mental disorders.
“If you can see what’s happening inside your mind, then you can remove yourself from the symptoms and view it in a new light, If we can turn it into a mainstream game that people want to play, then it has the potential to reach an audience that goes well beyond that small section of the population that needs and seeks therapy” said by Antoniades
Complications in Today’s time
In today’s world, there is severe competition in everything. But this Ninja project might not be the high rated, or most appreciated version of Microsoft store. According to Antoniades, Ninja projects are not focused on survival but on interesting and helping. As he said:
“For me, [the Insight Project is] the most interesting project we’re doing, we have to approach it very cautiously and carefully. We have to make sure the ethics are right, the privacy guidelines are right [and] the science is right,”
Still, it is possible you will not find this game on Xbox next year or 2021 as it is based on multiyear research.
“You can’t solve this problem with one product. It’s like trying to solve climate change,” says Antoniades. “Our interest in this project is to find a new approach to the problem of our times.”
Summarizing the above discussion, The Insight project started about five years ago when Antoniades collaborated with Fletcher to deal with these issues. A team of just 20 people successfully created Hellblade which was based upon Senua’s journey and sacrifices and it just made the invisible, visible. This game was successful in changing the mind of many people who were suffering from mental illness. Now, we are waiting for their next project which is promising “changing our lives.”